Apocalyptic Childhood: On Cixin Liu’s “Supernova Era”

By Gerry CanavanOctober 29, 2019

Apocalyptic Childhood: On Cixin Liu’s “Supernova Era”

Supernova Era by Cixin Liu

CIXIN LIU IS having a moment. The recent publication in English of his Three-Body Problem trilogy has been rightly hailed as a sea change for Chinese science fiction in translation, garnering myriad awards and receiving wide acclaim — including an endorsement from Barack Obama. The Wandering Earth, a novella with similar ecological interests, was adapted into a film earlier this year that similarly became a global blockbuster, announcing the new importance of Chinese science fiction cinema. Supernova Era, a novel written in 1989 in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and finally published in China in 2003, is now in development as a film as well, just as it appears to English-language readers for the first time in the competent hands of one of Liu’s major American translators, Joel Martinsen (who had previously translated The Dark Forest and Ball Lightning into English).

Like some of his works already better known to English-speaking audiences, Supernova Era takes place after an ecological catastrophe that upends the viability of contemporary politics and economics. Here, as the title suggests, it is the eruption of a nearby supernova that floods the planet with radiation, fatally poisoning everyone over the age of 13. With about a year to prepare themselves before every adult on the planet dies, the government of China uses a series of wargame simulations as a way to identify the children best suited to lead the nation after the disaster, ultimately settling on three primary protagonists, familiar archetypes from the world of children’s literature: Huahua (“a handsome, charismatic boy”), Xiaomeng (“a quiet, respected girl mature beyond her years”), and Specs (“an introverted boy with a keen mind”). The adults train the children to manage every aspect of the national economy, from production to transportation to logistics, and, after a successful dry run that shows the children are ready to do the work, withdraw to massive suicide chambers that have been constructed to facilitate their saying a final collective goodbye. When the last chamber goes silent, the Supernova Era has truly begun, and the world now belongs to the children.

Absolute chaos breaks out immediately, of course — but it’s only after control is restored and the children of the world get on with the business of surviving on their own that things really start to get weird.

For Western readers encountering Supernova Era after The Three-Body Problem trilogy and The Wandering Earth novella or film, the novel will definitely have the feel of an “early novel” from someone who later became a leading figure in the genre. Despite its cleverness, and its perceptive insights on the psychology of childhood, trauma, and grief, the book is somewhat uneven, with plot threads both less believable and less fleshed out than his later masterworks; given the billion-year scope of some of Liu’s later novels, this narrative ends much too soon, only a few years past the supernova disaster that inaugurates the plot, with only tantalizing glimpses of the following centuries from an unnamed historian narrator who has apparently lived through multiple unwritten sequels (all of which I would have absolutely loved to read).

Supernova Era certainly rewards the reader by introducing interesting complications — contact with the rest of the world is reestablished at the perfect moment, just when you’re wondering what happened to the children elsewhere — and the novel offers stunningly prescient anticipations of what massively democratized internet culture would become in the decades since its composition. But the entire book never quite comes together with the feeling of perfectly achieved accomplishment the way The Three-Body Problem and The Wandering Earth do; the characters are too stereotypical, and the solutions they engender too implausibly grand, in ways the later Liu is much more careful about. The book also teases a second apocalypse that it never follows through on, but which nonetheless haunts the text: what happens to these children, and the very fragile global order they have created, once puberty hits, their hormones go wild, and they all start having sex? Instead of developing this threat, however, we end Supernova Era in a moment of suspension, still waiting for this other shoe we know must yet eventually drop.

Despite this unbalanced and unfinished quality, however, the key themes of Liu’s larger oeuvre are all here. An ecological disaster threatens the planet. The terms are known; the prognosis is bad, and certain. There can be no doubt that there are incredibly difficult times ahead, with the survival of technological civilization and perhaps even the human species as a whole in doubt. So, of course, our civic institutions spring quickly into action, bringing together all the best minds in every field of human endeavor to ensure the best possible future for everyone. The ordinary toxic flows of capitalism cease; instead, humanity’s ingenious productivity and bottomless capacity for innovation is reoriented toward survival, and, in the nick of time, with huge, incalculable losses, the future is saved.

Moreover — to an extent intriguingly left out of some of Liu’s better-known later works — the children are able to recognize that mere survival is not enough. Huahua, Specs, and Xiaomeng understand (against the debilitating specter of universal laziness they call Candytown) that people must have useful, productive work if they are to want to continue to live; without work the society of Candytown breaks down inevitably into a depressed, narcoleptic stupor, completely unable to function, much less sustain itself. But they also realize that the world of wage labor and drudgery the adults left them to uncreatively replicate is its own nightmare, and so they abandon those blueprints in favor of a utopia of games, of play, of fun — a world where the point of being alive is to actually enjoy being alive.

Now, the humans in Liu’s fictions are not saints: there are always dire moments of backlash, too, moments of denial and cowardice and greed and the familiar madness of crowds refusing to face unpleasant truths. All of his major apocalyptic works thus far translated into English face this sort of ordinary and expected human failing as well. But what reads as genuinely, horrifyingly utopian for us in this moment is Liu’s insistence, across his career, that humanity does in fact want to survive — that, faced with a crisis that upends everything we know and threatens to impoverish and immiserate every human being alive and who will ever be alive, the human race will choose collective life over species death. This remains the most fantastic novum in anything Liu has written, an almost inconceivable shift in the priorities of our elites who, like the traitorous Escapers fleeing the invading Trisolarians in The Three-Body Problem, won’t even pretend to try and save the rest of us. “For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear,” a defiant, furious Greta Thunberg recently challenged the United Nations. “How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?” The adults of Supernova Era got it done in one. In a moment of intergenerational struggle defined by environmental protest groups like Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, and by the school climate strikes sparked by Thunberg and other young people around the globe, Supernova Era offers a tantalizing glimpse into another universe with an entirely different field of ecological politics, one where parents and grandparents won’t simply let their children and grandchildren suffer and die without a fight.

Liu touches on this oddly Oedipal aspect of the novel in a brief afterword reflecting on the book, in which he evocatively links Supernova Era to the concerns of several others of his novels (most directly the “Great Silence” that permeates the known universe in The Dark Forest). Where the eventual loss of one’s parents is an inevitable fact of any human life, he says, it is also the fundamental psychological condition of the human species as a whole, which finds itself alone in an apparently uncaring and empty universe. “[H]umanity,” he says, “is an orphan unable to find its parents’ hands, its mind full of terror and confusion even as sparks of naivete and unruliness flicker into flame.” With that in mind, he humbly adds, the story told in Supernova Era is “a fairly unremarkable one” — which is to say it is every story there is to tell about both lone individuals and immense global societies as they try, and fail, and try again, and fail again, to find some healthy way to parent themselves.


Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature.

LARB Contributor

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His research projects include Science Fiction and Totality, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.


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